Augustinian monks began building the church and the monastery in 1277. The main nave has a wooden barrel vaulting. A single side nave is used for exhibitions. The triple east windows are 700 years old. One of the windows displays a rose, which served as inspiration for the ‘Luther Rose’ insignia that Luther used to authenticate his letters and printed works; today it has widespread commercial uses in shops selling Luther souvenirs. The windows were recently cleaned and renovated, a project that was completed in 2014. There is an octagonal bell tower on the saddle roof. Johannes Zachariae, theologian and preacher who played a significant role in the condemnation of Ian Hus at the Council of Constance in 1415 and who is known as ‘the scourge of Hus,’ is buried in this church; his gravestone was put in a place of honor in front of the altar. (I’ll have more to say about this in a moment.) After the Reformation, the church became separate from the monastery and was used by the local Lutheran congregation. The site became the property of Erfurt city council after the last monk died in 1556. It was secularised in 1559 but was reconsecrated in 1854.
In 1505 Martin Luther entered this monastery in order to find peace with God. He said of himself: ‘If ever there was a monk who tried to get to heaven by “monkishness,” then all the cloister brothers who knew me would attest to the fact that I was that monk.’ He was ordained a priest in 1507 and celebrated his first mass in this church. During that mass, Luther felt so overwhelmed by the disparity between God’s majesty and his human frailty that he was momentarily paralyzed with fear and awe. The Augustine monastery has administrative offices, modern guest and conference rooms, as well as a large library. Public lectures, concerts, prayer meditations and conferences are held in the buildings of the monastery. There are regular services of holy communion in the church on Sundays and prayer services during the week. At the place where the library once stood is an underground ‘Place of Silence’ that commemorates the 267 people who sought shelter in the cellar of the monastery library during an Allied bombing attack in 1945; they lost their lives when a bomb hit the library directly. When Pope Benedict XVI visited Erfurt in 2011, he met with leading representatives of the Evangelische Kirche in the Augustinian Monastery and celebrated an ecumenical service with them.
Erfurt, with a population of 218,000, is the capital of the state of Thuringia, which is in the middle of Germany. St Boniface, the ‘Apostle of Germany,’ established the diocese of Erfurt in 742, at which time Erfurt was first documented as a place with inhabitants. Near the monastery is a famous landmark of Erfurt, the Krämerbrücke (Merchants’ bridge), which is a pedestrian bridge with picturesque shops and homes on both sides of a street, spanning a river; the bridge has been continuously inhabited for over 500 years. Chancellor Willy Brandt visited Erfurt in 1970 to initiate a political normalization process with East German leaders. The hotel at which he stayed (Erfurter Hof), although sealed off from the public, was besieged by eager East Germans who overran the barriers to see and greet Brandt. They chanted ‘Willy Brandt to the window!’ When Brandt appeared at a window he received a tumultuous ovation, which was embarrassing to the East German regime. ‘Willy Brandt to the window’ is now attached to the roof of the hotel with large illuminated letters.
The person who led the service and the lector did not introduce themselves.
What was the name of the service?Mittagsgebet (Midday Prayer).
How full was the building?
Ten persons were assembled near the altar in the choir stalls and a row of seats.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The leader handed out the order of service with cordial friendliness.
Was your pew comfortable?
The seat was comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and relaxed.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘In the midst of the day we pause. God is our center. We turn to him: Lord, our God, let us stand before you in the midst of our daily labors. Lead and guide us, so that we may seek out the One, and so that we may do that which needs to be done. Let us walk under your gaze. Amen.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
None. The three hymns were sung unaccompanied.
Did anything distract you?
Just ten feet from my seat was the gravestone of Johannes Zachariae. I could not stop thinking about one of the most ironic moments in church history. When Luther was consecrated as a monk, he lay face down, his body in the form of a cross, on the gravestone. As Hus was about to be burned at the stake, he is reputed to have said: ‘Today you are roasting a goose (the literal meaning of “Hus”), but in a hundred years you will hear a swan singing … and to his song you will have to listen.’ Luther saw himself as the fulfillment of Hus’s prophecy. Zachariae would have turned in his grave if he had known that his gravestone was being used as a place of holy consecration for one of the biggest ‘heretics’ of all time. Another distraction occurred during the reading about the gifts of the Magi: of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The lector mistook the letter ‘r’ for the letter ‘t’ and said, ‘Gold, frankincense and myth.’ This type of mistake can only occur if a person has never heard the word ‘myrrh’ in connection with the birth of Christ. I kept coming back to the question: should I be sad because a young adult has never heard the Christmas story, or should I be gratified because a person with no Christian background is participating actively in a church service?
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was an orderly, liturgical service of prayer that reflected the season of Christmas/Epiphany. We sang three hymns a cappella (two of which were written by Martin Luther). We heard the gospel reading for Epiphany. There was a responsive reading of a psalm. The intercessions were based upon prayers that had been posted on a board in the entrance area of the church – we prayed for several people who had severe and painful health problems. A prayer request for two family members who had died included a ‘frohe Weihnachten’ (‘merry Christmas’) directed to God and to all. The service concluded with the Lord’s Prayer, a sung prayer for peace, and a blessing.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The place at which I sat was a place where traditionally heaven and earth come together: the choir stalls, at which strictly disciplined Augustinian monks had been singing prayers for centuries, where I could have reached out and touched the lighted Christmas tree, where I had a close-up view of the manger scene, consisting of unpainted carved wooden figures, placed right in front of the altar at which Luther had stood trembling and paralyzed in the Divine Presence.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I have sat in many cold churches, but this was the coldest. I would have put on my gloves but was afraid of not being able to hold onto the order of service, so I kept alternating which hand I warmed in my coat pocket. This icy chill is a reminder that the word ‘hell’ is allegedly derived from the Norse hel, which refers to the underworld abode of the dead, enveloped in fog, ice, snow and frost, whereas the Norse heaven (Walhalla) has warm, cozy fires. Now I understand why.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After this short service of prayer several people were standing around in a random way, which did not attract attention.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — Every aspect of this historic church conveys a feeling of deep, sacred atmosphere.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Wise Men from the East brought ‘gold, frankincense and myth.